10,000 Light-Years from Home — James Tiptree, Jr.

Cover of 10,000 Light-Years from Home


10,000 Light-Years from Home
James Tiptree, Jr.
255 pages
published in 1973

Ther may have been something ineluctably masculine about James Tiptree Jr’s writing, as Robert Silverberg will never live down writing in his appreciation of Tiptree, but he’s still part of my Year of Reading Women project. Because as we all know now, but Silverberg didn’t, “James Tiptree Jr” was a pseudonym for Alice B. Sheldon. Sheldon’s reasons for chosing a male pseudonym were many and complex and if you want to know all about it, read Julie Phillips James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Suffice to say that at the time of 10,000 Light-Years from Home, Tiptree’s first collection, the secret was not out yet, as is obvious from Harry Harrison’s introduction, full of what “he” did during the war. All of which was true by the way, just with the genders flipped.

James Tiptree, Jr. therefore was an obvious entry for my little project; the reason I chose this particular collection was just because this was the only one at hand. I’ve read quite a lot of Tiptree stories, as well as several under her other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, but mostly through various anthologies rather than her own collections. Because 10,000 Light-Years from Home is such an early collection it misses most of Tiptree’s best stories. Worse, some of her better known early stories, like e.g. “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” or “Your Haploid Heart” are also missing. Yet what remains is still a very good collection of short stories any writer could be proud of. What struck me is that some of the stories in this collection could’ve been published in Analog unaltered, which is not what you’d expect from Tiptree’s reputation as a “difficult”, too feminist, New Wave writer who helped ruined science fiction, as some of the troglodytes online would have it.

10,000 Light-Years from Home is a very strong collection, with only two below par stories. Unfortunately these two stories occur early in the collection, as the second and third story respectively, something you have to work through to get to the good stuff. On the other hand it does start on a high note, with a classic Tiptree story that embodies everything that you should associate with Tiptree. It takes something that lies at the heart of science fiction as a genre, a worldview and turns it on its head, not to mention reveals the sexual undercurrent running through it.

That first story is the most Tiptree of the collection, while some of the others as said could’ve been published in Analog or Galaxy, classic problem stories, very good but not quite what you expect. “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion”, ” I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool is Empty” and “Birth of a Salesman” all feature protagonist working through several problems thrown up by their day to day occupation, getting the better of them through their own cleverness, though in the second story it all gets a bit ironic.

This may not be the best Tiptree collection to start with and has anyway long since gone out of print, but most of the stories here are worth reading.

And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side • (1972)
Tiptree takes the classic science fictional longing for the stars and alien encounters and recognises it for what it is, the ultimate sexual thrill for a species that gets a kick out of the novel, the unknown, then shows how dangerous this is.

The Snows Are Melted, the Snows Are Gone • (1969)
The least interesting of the stories in this collection, as this never quite comes together. A girl with no arms and her wolf stalk and lure the big blond leader of a tribe of savages into a trap, for what turns out to be breeding purposes. More of a sketch than a story, with what power it has in its punchline.

The Peacefulness of Vivyan • (1971)
Vivyan is at peace with himself and whatever world he finds himself on. So why is it that everywhere he goes war and terror follow? A decent enough story, but made confusing by an unexpected switch in viewpoints leading to a long flashback.

Mamma Come Home • (1968)
When an alien ship lands on the Moon and three of the crew come to Earth, the world is astonished to see they are human, women even, but women much taller and bigger and powerful than anybody on Earth. They look charming and friendly but terrestial history knows how these first contacts work out for the inferior parties. This is Tiptree’s second published story, already having both the macho narrator and the feminist insights of her later stories, though here the narrator isn’t as clueless as in e.g. “The Women Men Don’t See” and the feminism is all about rape threats.

Help • (1968)
A more lighthearted sequel to the last story, with two alien races coming to visit, one which leaves three objects in orbit then bugger off, the second who look like very nice, friendly people, until they start doing to the whole world what the Spanish inquisition did to the Incas and Aztecs…

Painwise • (1972)
The most new wavish of the stories in this collection, about an astronaut scouting alien worlds whose pain receptors are rewired so his pain flows somewhere else so he’s impervious to torture, yet he can still suffer in his isolation and loneliness.

Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion • (1969)
While this is the most Analog of the stories, almost something an Asimov could’ve written. We follow Peter Christmas, the human administrator of Raceworld, where all the intelligent species in the Galaxy come together to compete and gamble, through a day of problems encountered and solutions found, at the end of which we find out why it’s so important for humans to keep Raceworld going. This may actually have been the first ever Tiptree story I’d ever read, years and years ago in some forgotten anthology.

The Man Doors Said Hello To • (1970)
A cheerful fantasy story that could’ve been published in Analog‘s long gone sister publication Unknown, about a man who, well, doors said hello to and who has girls living in his pockets…

The Man Who Walked Home • (1972)
Caught in a time travel experiment gone wrong, John Delgado walks home from the unimaginably distant future. To him, it takes only seconds, but on Earth years, decades and centuries see him walk in reverse, appearing once a year at the same spot, myths, legends and religions growing up around him.

Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket • (1972)
An ironic time travel story, with sex, of two timecrossed lovers and the trap they set themselves…

I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool is Empty • (1971)
A nice young Terran boy on his gap year stumbles on a very primitive planet and sets about, in his charmingly naive and bumbling way, to improve it, like a Peace Corp volunteer teaching basketball to a tribe of headhunters.

I’m Too Big but I Love to Play • (1970)
Another very New Wave sort of story, of an alien energy based intelligence attempting to imitate human life and never quite getting it right.

Birth of a Salesman • (1968)
You don’t know half the kind of headaches exporting even simple products to alien worlds can throw up, especially when your product has to reach its destination through several transfer points run by other alien races, all with their own very specific taboos and sensitivities. It’s the job of the Xeno-Cultural Gestalt Clearance people to make sure these headaches don’t happen

Mother in the Sky With Diamonds • (1971)
A Belter story that reads like a mixture of Larry Niven and Samuel Delany.

Beam Us Home • (1969)
A young boy thinks he’s an alien beamed down as an observer to Earth, stops believing this when he grows up, but of course turns out to be right. As acknowledged in the story’s title already, this is very much inspired by Star Trek.

2 thoughts on “10,000 Light-Years from Home — James Tiptree, Jr.

  1. Pingback: Conspiracy Theories! | Five science fiction novels for people who hate SF – The Guardian

  2. Pingback: Conspiracy Theories! | Five science fiction novels for people who hate SF – The Guardian (blog)

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